With back up from Mark in a 4×4 sat alongside Colin on a Nikon, we set off for the 1100-km ride from Assa through the Western Saharan interior to Dakhla via Smara and the Digtree (left), a fuel cache I had buried in 2015. I tried to get there alone on a WR250 in 2017 but when push came to turn left, it felt too risky.
The fuel may have been getting a bit ripe by now, but all was going well until I hit irreparable tyre troubles just 100km from the Digtree. I limped back 250km to Layounne, got fixed up and, now out of time before I meet my tour group, we settled for a leisurely drive north up the windswept Atlantic coast. Not for the first time, my Sahara plans slipped through my fingers.
Hooning about on a clay pan.
The century-old Aéropostale base at Cape Juby (Tarfaya).
Inside the base.
Cap Juby in its heyday.
Tojo wheels + jerries – the only windbreaks for miles.
Watchtower on a berm just 50km from the Mauritanian border.
Hot steam and rubber. Cleaning out the Slime.
‘Moto – Landrover – Layounne?’ I point to each and try and persuade a Saharawi to transport my bike to the coast.
Churned up, sandy gorge at MW6 KM246. The Himalayan meets it’s limit.
They like the word Sahara out here.
Crossroads where MW6 joins MW7. Came from the left on the WR in 2017.
Khnifiss Bird Lagoon.
Topping up for the day. A can will do me at least 500km.
Desert dawn near Gueltat Zemmour.
A Dakar Rally mound. Pushed up every kilometre or so as landmarks right along our route to the Digtree and beyond.
Most of the riding is easy, as above. But it only takes one lapse in concentration.
Removing the punctured Tubliss core in Layounne.
The mouth of the Draa which rises near Ouarzazate in the High Atlas, but very rarely flows in its entirety the 1000-odd km to the ocean.
Out of Tiznit we took an interesting track along the Oued Assaka to Fort Bou Serif ruins for a spot of lunch and some filming.
Last night I tracked down the exact point where Jebel Sarhro ‘Double West’ picks up off the Nekob highway, near Tansikht. I tried to find it a couple of years ago with a group, but failed. We did it coming down in 2013 – a spectacular afternoon’s ride up MH14 and down MH15. Glad I left the Husky Terra at the auberge on that occasion and borrowed a 250 Tornado. It’s heating up again – my body thermometer doesn’t know if it’s coming or going. My Hyperpro suspension has softened a bit too, and I found my PLA (preload knob) was close to max. I emailed Bas at HP and he suggested not upping the low speed comp (also now on max) but cranking up the rebound which I do in the shade of a palm. Who’d have known (turned out later they’d spec’d a way too soft spring for my weight, despite asking). Those carpets are actually pretty heavy and, annoyingly, I filled right up at Agdz, instead of just a couple of litres to get me over. I’ll feel that extra weight on the hill. With 4 settings it’s easy to get baffled by a high-end shock unless you RTFM. But they sure do make a difference. My WR rides like my old G650X Country – there must be something to this progressive spring theory. With a hot back wind from the south, it’s a tough, 2500-foot climb over 10kms to this pass.
The bike grinds up in 1st and occasionally 2nd, and in places the exposure gets a little alarming.
I stop into the wind a couple of times to cool the motor and calm the nerves. Luckily, round the corner the track keeps its elevation along a saddle…
… to reach the plateau.
There are nomad tents with grazing sheep and patches of bright green cultivation against the barren rock. I pass this ruined agadir, or fortified storehouse.
I then reach the point where MH14 coming up from Nekob joins this route, but it looks like no one’s used it for a while.
I last did it 5 years ago on an F650GS (above) and a mate on a TTR. Now it’s becoming another abandoned track suited to light bikes looking for a challenge. F ‘650’ was a great bike; I wish they (or anyone) would make a light, 500cc version. Then, a few km on I suddenly join a wide, graded track. That wasn’t here last time. What a relief! I can finally relax for a bit. I’m all for off-roading, but that climb was a bit gnarly.
Surely they’re not building a road to the few hamlets up here? More probably it’s another haul road put in by prospectors to extract Jebel Sarhro’s gold and other minerals. Down in this basin I follow the haul road skirting a village, but it has yet to breach the ridge. Lots of trucks, rock hammers and dead ends leading to quarries.
With the Garmin map I work my way back to the old village track, get over an antenna pass and carry on north. It’s actually a very nice track, and I realise why. After storms, work parties from the villages re-cover bare stony sections with sand and gravel to smooth it over and spare the van transporters a hammering. Only useful village tracks get this sort of maintenance.
I recognise this knot of villages by the Oued Dades. Nearly over. I am pooped.
Suddenly I briefly plunge into a verdant oasis of trees and barley. After all the rough, rocky riding it’s quite mesmerising, a real tonic on the eyes.
I stop on the bridge to admire the washerwomen. It sure is nice to see greenery and water.
But as I reach the N10, before I’m even in neutral, I’m set upon by a teenager demanding money. The N10 is on what I call the Tourist Axis: Marrakech; Ouarzazate; Todra (do me a favour!); Erfoud; Merzouga (Chebbi), with branches down to Mhamid and up to Imilchil. A few years ago at Tinerhir there was a scam where they let fuel pumps run without actually dispensing fuel. (Harder to pull off on a bike with a translucent tank). I ignore the rude boy and he goes back to work at the blacksmith nearby. Keep off these axes and you’ll find another Morocco of genuine, friendly people. There a Ziz nearby – lunch is 40d, a bit more than normal, and a bloke points me in the wrong direction for the toilet. Ya got me! [dickhead].
Time to head up the Dades valley – one long line of auberges and axis activities, but there are scenic views to be had.
Higher and higher I climb. I plan to stop away from the over-priced ‘hello-mister’ throng, at the very last village with the very last auberge before the main ascent tomorrow.
Tilmi. End of the road.
The Assaka auberge is basic, but Hussain cooks up a mean lamb tajine. A good one stews for two hours. He shows me his special, aromatic four-spice mix. Everyone had their own recipe.
Time to translate the day’s jottings into legible data. Tomorrow one last piste then homeward bound.
A trip report from March 2017 while updating my Morocco Overland book. It got very hot in the desert for a while which wore me right out, but I rested in Tan Tan where it cooled off for a few days, so I dived back in before the heat came back for good.
This time I used Fly & Ride to get the 250 to Malaga. Didn’t fancy Spain at 57mph. Works out cheaper too when you add it all up. Done trans-Spain enough times.
Gales meant the ferry took over an hour to dock at TanMed, and next day was miserable – down to 45 in 4th at times. But there’s no quick way to get south as nothing was going to Nador. I try Airbnb and find this lost resort up a valley near Bzou.
I inadvertently gatecrash a Berber soiree. No room at the inn so he feeds me and puts me up down the road.
My first tajeeen of twenty-seventeeen.
Next day I got my bike back – pootling though the springtime Middle Atlas without fighting gales and showers and trucks. 95mpg thankyouverymuch.
I take the old Demnate route over the High Atlas. Last did it on the XT660Z in 2008
The road deteriorates in places. Lots of landslides. Near zero traffic.
I pop out on the south side overlooking the headwaters of the Oued Draa near Ouarzazate. There’s a huge new solar farm down there.
After some fumbling about, I pick up a new piste from Ouarzazate to Tazenacht.
Nice colours on the ford
Next day another new piste I’ve been wanting to unravel for ages. Olaf map is confusing, but an old man in a village puts me straight Wildflowers are out.
I’ll take the odd mast over photo-bombing telegraph lines any day
The ruins of Assaka ksar.
No Canoeing? Shame.
Perfect lunch at Foum Zguid roadhouse
A good morning’s work – but it is now as hot as.
I check out a flash place for a future tour, then head into FZ for my reliable cheapy: 16 quid half board √
At 14-47 my bike is over geared even on the road, and my weight and wide pans don’t help. But the flat wheel wrench won’t fit – who’d have thought? – so I nip into town to blag a 27 socket as there’s gnarlier dirt to come…
While in Morocco last year and not riding around on my WR250R, I left it with a list and a bunch of stuff with Karim, a desert bikey mate with a lavishly equipped garage and some spare time on his hands. Over the weeks he tinkered away, finishing the job I’d started in the summer, converting the WR into a lightweight desert bike.
The list included a TrailTech engine temperature gauge (above). IMO it’s vital to be able to know an engine’s temperature – air or water-cooled; I don’t want to hope some warning light might chip in just as steam starts wafting up from under the tank (as happened to a 450 KTM in the desert once, left: engine fried, end of his ride). The gauge’s pick-up sensor can be mounted anywhere very hot including splicing into the radiator hose to read water temps – all you’re really looking for is a representative value from which to evaluate a normal reading.
If it starts straying into unusually high figures you can choose to back off, or even stop and turn into the wind at tickover. On the ride back to London in a backwind gale the temperature varied from 85°C up to 115°C flat out or at the lights, but usually around 100. Another handy thing is it reads even when the engine’s off – a handy air temp reading when camping. At the same time one fan blade got tippexed white to make it easier to see at a glance if it was spinning when it should be.
A RAM mount and wire for my Montana got hardwired in (left) to guarantee a reliable, clip-on connection, and some 12-volt and USB plugs got added to the cross-bar (right). Got no actual use for them but handy to have. There’s also a DIN plug tucked in by the seat base to power a heated jacket and the tyre pump.
I’m going to be trying out some new Kriega Overlander-S panniers – OS32 – which mount and strap on quite cleverly to an HDPE platform that’s clamped to the rack. I’ll do a fuller review of the system once on a road a couple of weeks, but as you can see, the volume means a large tailpack isn’t needed, even with basic camping gear. I find that makes swinging a leg over the high saddle easier and a less cluttered look.
My trusty old Barkbuster Storms are getting what must be their fifth fitting on the WR. Whatever came with the bike was all plastic and not really up to the job. And before I’d even loaded the bike to head back to London, the Barks saved the day when a gust from Storm Doris (right) blew the WR over.
The headlight bulb has been uprated to a Cyclops H4 LED (on ebay) which emits a bluey light, and they promise will cut through the night sky like a meteor shower as well as consume less juice. And down by the front sprocket I added a Sandman case saver kit from Basher in Missouri. I’m starting on a 14T (on 46), and swapping to a 13T (about 10% lower gearing if the speedo error is any judge), should the need arise.
Tyres, you ask: I try never to use the same type twice and this time around I’m on Mitas (formerly Sava) MC23 Rockriders. I was hoping to go tubeless until I saw the back DID rim doesn’t have the lip (in which case this would work, were it in my size). I’m confident the Mitaii will easily last the trip of about 5000km, helped with a splash of Slime and a few Hail Marys.
I’ve also added a dinky Motion Pro rim lock on the back which weighs next to nothing, but will hopefully bite when the need arises. I can’t see me running pressures low enough where the scant torque of a WR250 will be able to pull the tyre round the rim. The whole point of running knobblies like the MC23s is – away from deep sand plains and dunes – you will get great grip on the dirt without the need to run them at 1 bar and risk flats.
And that is that. The rest of the adaptions are here. The bike is on its way to Malaga in a Fly and Ride artic which, at £595 return, actually works out quicker and cheaper than a ferry-and-Spain crossing.
I readily admit the WR is no FJ12 on the open road and makes you feel a bit vulnerable dicing with fast European highway traffic – but then again it won’t be an FJ12 on rough backroads or the pistes either. So far I have a good feeling about the untried WR-R: I love the lightness and the better than average poke for a 250, along with great mpg and desert-ready suspension and tyres. But of course, I’ll miss the comfort of last year’s La Mancha-munching CB500X. What we have here is a specialised, lightweight desert touring bike. Stick around to see how the WR performs in Morocco and, if it behaves, in Western Sahara too.
I haven’t been trail biking in Wales since my 20s. Makes me wonder what I’ve been doing all these years. Part of the reason is I’ve not had a bike worth riding up there, and then there’s the issue of untangling where you can ride legally. Desert biking can spoil you, but Wales gets a lot more inviting with a light and pokey WR250R and knowing the right people. Dan and Dave were on my 2007 Algeria tour along with their own trips to all corners of the globe. John, an old mate of theirs, works at the Yamaha Off Road Experience near Llanidloes, and generously offered to take us for a ride out.
We vanned up to Llani, lubed up the bikes and rode over to Geraint Jones‘ hill farm where the Yam school is based. Back in the late ’70s when I was dirt-bike mad, I remember Geraint Jones (left, old pic) was ‘Mr Maico’. He was to enduros what Graham Noyce was to motocross, Barry Sheene to GPs and Martin Lampkin to trials. In amateur hands the big Maicos he rode had a reputation for being hard to handle. I remember the red devil machines flying overhead as I floundered about during the nearby Plynlimon Enduro in 1981 aboard a KLX250 – the original sheep in wolf’s clothing.
As I recall in Street Riding, I was so slow they were literally packing up as I rolled over the finish line. And if you ever wondered what happened to those red devil machines, this is an interesting read from our man, Rick Sieman.
The benefit of riding with John from the school was that he knew the lanes, which ones would suit the day’s weather and the groups’ abilities, plus he had special access to trails in the adjacent Hafren Forest. Hafren becomes ‘Severn’ in English and a few minutes into the ride we passed within a mile of the River Severn’s boggy source on the side of Plynlimon mountain. Dave was on his third and near-new 690, Dan was on a 100-kilo 350 EXC and John was riding a Yam WR250F, as used by the school. This is a full-on, super-light enduro machine and despite similarities is an entirely different bike from my heavier and less powerful 250R, below left.
For me it was a real eye-opener how gorgeous the Cambrian mountain of northern mid-Wales could be. I’d always considered it a No-Mans’s Land between the better know Brecons and Snowdonia to the north which explained why green laning (using off-road vehicles on unsealed but public roads) was permitted to survive here.
I can now see it as a great destination its own right – a compact Scottish Highlands but without their near-total ban on green laning, and without the rambling crowds of Snowdonia. And never mind the trails, much of the fun to me was cruising the deserted single-track backroads that snaked across the moors – the yellow C roads on the map you could do on any bike.
After Machynlleth, heading up the gnarly ‘Happy Valley’ green lane reminded me my WR was still without a proper bashplate (the OE one is seized on). In the meantime I was amazed how well the unfashionable Bridgestone TW301/302s tyres were managing. These came with the bike in 2008, were refitted by Hyperpro on selling it, and I can say did not miss a beat. My snazzy Hyperpro suspension soaked up the easy pace too, just as you’d expect, though I dare say I could have refined it by playing with the knobs. Like the TTR250 I used in Spain in the summer, I never wished for more power on the trails or backroads – but then we did cheat by vanning the 200 miles up from London. The good thing with modest power is the tyre won’t spin out readily, but if caught in the wrong gear that WR still had enough to chug its way out – I never stalled it.
After reading so much about them, Dave let me have a quick spin on his 690 (recently fitted with Evo 2 aux. tanks) but can’t say I’m a convert yet. The KTM’s thumping vibration really struck me, soon followed by realising how quickly the sharp brakes and more than double the WR’s power could turn on me if tired or not concentrating. But the bike had a solid feel that even a new WR might not match, and out in the open desert I bet it would be in its element. A quick spin on Dan’s 350 EXC (right) on soft power setting was much more like it, but that bike needs new oil every 1000 miles so isn’t a contender as a travel bike. What I’d like is a 450 version of the 690, but pitched as a less tyre-shredding travel bike. Press the red button if I’ve said this before.
There sure are a lot of gates on the green lanes of the Cambrian mountains. It was rare to ride more than five minutes without doing the gate dance – and sometimes less than a minute. It breaks the rhythm of the ride but they contain the sheep which can easily jump a cattle grid if spooked. The trail north into Dolgellau between Cader Idris and the Barmouth estuary was a notable exception – a good ten minutes riding or more between gates. We came across a few ramblers and dog walkers who didn’t look too put out – they’re walking along a ‘road’ after all, even if they don’t realise it. And we nearly ran into a big group of lads bursting out of the forest on unlicensed dirt bikes. Damage wise, their impact was minimal and who knows, the new Geraint Jones could be among them, but I bet they’d all rather be legit. Wouldn’t be it be great to have a huge trail park out here where people could roll up and ride round at their own pace, instead of the scurrying around on wasteland or dodging the rangers.
It poured overnight but day two actually dawned even brighter, apart from a well-timed downpour as we ate lunch in Talybont. Either the riding was easier or I was getting to grips with the WR. On rougher trails I did find it hard to ride smoothly; balancing the jerkiness of the engine with the right gear and the rebounding suspension while looking at what’s coming up and steering away from rocks, but this is just the nature riding a light, small-capacity bike at slow speeds. Turn up the wick if there’s room and things would smooth out. After the rain there were some bigger puddles today too. Initially they were a worry as I’d read the WR was prone to cutting out in a splash, but even with the engine note muted in two feet of water, it never even coughed. I don’t know if it’s been a dry spell – in Wales, what are the chances? – but the ride John led us on was pleasingly free of mud and to me was all the better for it. My recollection of bombing around Rhayader on XTs 30 years ago was plunging into one peaty morass after another which just makes a mess of you and the landscape.
It would be great to do more riding around here on my own, as it’s as wild and extensive as you’ll get in the UK (there’s virtually no green laning in Scotland). But unless you live nearby or do the research, it would be hard to get a handle on which trails are legal and then put together a satisfying two-day route like the one we followed with John. Now of course we have the TET (see map below). Every year more and more green lanes in England and Wales get downgraded to paths. I haven’t a clue which of the trails we did were open to all, but promisingly I only saw one ‘no vehicles’ sign. Lacking a local pro like John, the answer is to hook up with the TRF or join an escorted tour from £50 a day with four of you. That’s just the way it is living in a small, crowded country and why I set off for the wide open Sahara in the first place – and why I’m off to Utah next week!